“Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron. Here is a book which will break your heart.” — CS Lewis
It must have been 1999, though it very well could have been 1998. Growing up in a large metropolitan city with a father who was employed at a small private school meant funds were forever tight. I attended that small private school resulting in sundry friends whose dad’s had much better paying jobs. I remember specifically the evening that changed many things for my life; though, of course, I knew it not at the time. In my friend’s basement, we stared at the large television in the wall as a ring was discovered and goofy songs were sung. Ignorance was me in fifth grade. I would later discover the story behind the movie in a rather big book. And that tome sparked a beginning for me as it has for many a person. That movie and book, as you may well have guessed by now, is The Hobbit. You can view it in its entirety here.
I am grateful for those friends I had early on in the journey of my life, but as I grow older, I appreciate growing up with very little. I did not have internet until I was about fourteen or a cell phone of my own until seventeen; and though I spent far too many hours watching television, I do believe my generation is the generation that will forever be known as the last line of imaginative creatures. We were forced at some point to go out into the wide world of my neighborhood: to create football plays in the dirt (or in our case, the cement), to venture off into the forest (or in our case, the sparsely wooded area behind my house), to pretend to be a part of something much larger than ourselves (which naturally included the use of toy guns and swords — that actually looked like real guns and real swords — the shooting or stabbing of many “bad guys,” and the saving of many a fair maiden). In short, I had a childhood. And in all my vain effort to leave that part of my life behind, suppressing imagination, I inevitably feel drawn to a story in a book with odd characters and silly songs. The Hobbit reminds me of a time when imagination was crucial to my existence. It reminds me that however fast I attempt to flee my own creations, I always come crawling back in search of those dreams.
As many know, Peter Jackson is coming out with the prequel to the famous Lord of the Rings trilogy on December 14. Many fine writers have attempted the same format. Shakespeare wrote Henry VI before he wrote the preceding histories, and George Lucas made episodes 4-6 before those deplorable prequels were created. As much as I love The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit has a special place in my life because of what it signifies. This significance prompted me to prepare for this December (as I will probably do for part two and part three in the following falls) and reread the novel once again.
When I first read the novel in eighth or ninth grade, I began on a course in my life that led to a life of reading. The humor, the narration, the picturesque settings, all with the odd utter lack of mystery opened up a world I had not ventured to believe in since my more supernatural youth. Bilbo signifies that in everyone. Bilbo represents modern man, and the slow process of aging. Bilbo wanted nothing but a comfortable life, but the story turns out to be “how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected.” If analyzed at all, it should be analyzed under the narrow microscope of a story about a comfortable old man who decided to take chances — for as we all grow older, we recognize that the large window of chances we once used to have flung wide open has increasingly seen its curtains pulled in, and the gaping whole turned into a smallish crack, keeping out the cold nuisance of consequences those chances create.
While it is so tempting to run through the novel looking for motifs and symbols and themes, I am more inclined to take a step back and write about it as it functions best: a story. When Bilbo begins his adventure, he is a comfortable, well-to-do hobbit that does not seek any adventures. He plays life safe, drinking tea and smoking pipes, yet deep down his “Tookish” side is yearning for a chance to be represented. A side of him longs for adventure. Despite this, Bilbo still has to be nearly pushed out the door by Gandalf on his way to help the dwarves. He forgets his pocket handkerchief and pipe (two essentials) and looks anything but a burglar, let alone someone of value for their trip.
Indeed, his first attempt at stealing something nearly leads to the death of the whole company. He is furthermore lost in the Misty Mountains, only escaping because of the ring. He does nothing throughout the first half of the novel worthy to be distinguished as noble or heroic. He steals nothing, complains often, and is fretted over as if more of a bother than a burglar.
But in the end, a different hobbit is the main character in the book. In a fantastic display of the growth of a character, Bilbo grows as each page is turned. No longer is he a pudgy, no-good, grumbler. He is the “clue-finder”, the “web-cutter”, the “stinging fly”, the “friend of bears”, the “guest of eagles”, “Ringwinner” and “Luckwearer”, the “Barrel-rider.” Bilbo is seen saving his friends from large spiders, skeptical elves, and eventually their own pride and greed. The reader notices he begins making decisions and directing traffic. It is Bilbo who finds the Arkenstone and uses it in negotiations against his friends. The weight of such a tough decision is lost on a reader entranced in the story. Bilbo, who likes to be respected, takes a leap of faith in such an act, placing himself at the mercy of Thorin and Company. Grace he does not see until the very end.
I have now read the novel four times. Shortly after my first time through, I plunged into The Lord of the Rings but did not find the same magic I discovered in Tolkien’s first masterpiece. It is not to say that the sequel was not any good. But The Hobbit is such a lighthearted work, filled with mirth and a youthfulness that the great trilogy does not capture. The Lord of the Rings makes you want to climb a mountain, The Hobbit entices you to dance even if you are certain the activity will end poorly. I believe Tolkien’s narrator comes out a bit more in The Hobbit, speaking directly to the reader, reminding him he is reading a story, enticing him to question its validity. As we question the truthfulness, we notice we are not questioning whether it ever happened but could it happen. And yet the narrator’s conversation with the reader beckons the reader to take part in the novel. He invites us into the world Tolkien creates.
The narrator, of course, is not to be confused with Tolkien himself (often a reader’s mistake). Tolkien is the creator, and this narrator he created is akin to many a narrator of Dickens’. The narrator in The Hobbit (I presume the same as the one in the The Lord of the Rings) is a narrator who is so lighthearted and, frankly, goofy that the knocking off of a goblin’s head is an opportunity at a joke on how the game of golf began. But he, the narrator, crawls back in his hole in the sequel, allowing the greater unfolding of the story to take place. There is nothing worse than a story in which the teller keeps interrupting himself. He can do this in The Hobbit though because the The Hobbit is closer to a joke than a journey. Bilbo is more Pickwickian at the beginning of the novel, only lacking roundish spectacles to compliment the rounded frame of his belly.
Like Pickwick, Bilbo slowly begins to redeem himself despite the carnage occurring all around him. He begins to question the actions of his comrades more and more as the novel progresses. He begins to think outside of himself and see the whole broader picture of their quest. What really was their plan when they arrived at the end and met the dragon? For him to go stealing one cup at a time? The soft-skinned hobbit grows tougher as the novel progresses, taking less flack for his actions and standing up for himself.
In the end, the novel introduces every reader to the problem of complacency in their own lives. To use a cliché, everyone has a little bit of Bilbo Baggins within them. Much like Bilbo desired a comfortable life of ease and respectability, humans desire to be in control. To have life out of their own grasp is discomforting. At the end of the novel, however, Bilbo certainly loses many of those “treasures” he once enjoyed during the first pages. He no longer can properly associate with his fellow Hobbits. Only one of his relatives seems to truly understand him. He is a citizen of a much larger world than his neighbors. While he is seen as uncouth and wild, we cannot help but recognize that his perspective on life has changed. A whole world full of wizards, goblins, dwarves, eagles, and gollums exists. No longer can he take for granted the sweat musical sound of his tea kettle. No longer can he blow smoke rings over the hills outside his hole without gratefulness. In short, Bilbo won the ability to look at the world he had always known in a much different light. From a view wholly foreign to him, he took his simple life he had lived in and placed it into the context of the whole of middle earth. Hobbits and humans were not created for continual conflict, but without a little conflict even the comfort they claim to control cannot truly be comfort. We can only know comfort from discomfort, and Tolkien, Bilbo, and our narrator ask us to experience a little discomfort if not solely for this purpose.